Koh Samui: "Be Happy Where You Are"
November 15, 2004
Dear Family and Friends,
I just finished my morning walk on Hat Chaweng, the longest beach on Samui, a large island in the middle of the Gulf of Siam. The tide is out so I wander along a flat, curved boulevard of fine, golden sand surrounded by palm trees and a few green hills. About 200 meters out to sea is a rocky breakwater parallel to the shore.
On the restaurant deck of the Chewang Villa Beach Resort, early risers are enjoying a buffet breakfast and a view of the waves and some ominous steely grey clouds. Beach boys are setting up for the day's activities. Yes, my friends, peaceful and idyllic.
Set back from the beach are a number of shops and small hotels with some catchy names: Al's Hotel; Barracuda Guest House; Mr. Ung's Magical Safari Tour; to make me feel at home, La Playa Bistro, which offers $7.50 jugs of Margaritas or Kamikazes at Happy Hour; my favorite, Lucky Mother Bungalow. And finally, Thai Massage, Oil Massage, Facial Massage, Foot Massage, Foot Scrubbing, Manicure, Pedicure, Ear Piercing, and Tattoo . . . by Eva. Now don't be alarmed, my dear readers. I am not planning to return to Miami-Dade County with any dermatological decoration.
Sadly, though, this tranquil setting has become only a watery veneer for the reality of this hugely popular destination. Just 300 meters inland is the main road. Ugly. Ugly. Ugly. Hundreds, hundreds of shops and stalls selling "hand carved" elephants, "Armani" custom tailored suits and dresses, (or "Versace" if that is your taste, or "Prada" if that is your pleasure), "Polo" and "Lacoste" shirts, (I bought two, at $3.00 a copy), "original" oil paintings, and Thai "silk."
In addition to the legitimate Thai food and seafood restaurants, a group of "local" establishments has sprouted up. Perhaps you have heard of McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Haagen Dazs, Swensens, Baskin Robbins, Star-bucks!!!??? Can you imagine a journey of 8 or 10 or 20 hours to Bangkok and then another 10 hours to Ko Samui and all that time be hankering for a Big Whopper or a slice of pepperoni pizza?
So far I haven't spotted a Dunkin' Donuts or a KFC, but I am on the lookout for The Colonel. What we really need here is a Zabars or a Rascal House or, at the very least, an Einstein's Bagels. Anyone want to go partners with me?
After about 9:00 pm, the traffic is overwhelming. Cars, motorbikes, buses, taxis . . . everyone is on the move. Where are they going? I don't know. Pubs are packed with thousands of kids, all much too young to be my children. And ubiquitous bar girls of both the female and male/female variety sing out to me: "Hello." "Welcome." "Have a drink, mister."
Apparently, over the years, the growth has been relentless and unregulated. I guess, in the minds of the Thais, unrestrained development and the millions of dollars flowing into this place trump the natural environment of once upon a time.
Anyway, the reason I am here in the first place is to visit my friend Ja, a sweet, cheerful 27 year old Thai girl. I met Ja in Hua Hin last summer when I was a regular customer at the small sidewalk restaurant she ran with her brother. Now she is in Ko Samui in the same business. Yes, I know it may be hard to believe, sports fans, but Ja and Jan are just friends. She is enthusiastically and glowingly six months pregnant and married to Pascal, a French guy of uncertain provenance. He persuaded her that he "loooooooved" her "soooooo much." Ja and I have managed to have some happy moments together, and she has insisted on introducing me to her friends. I think her friend Noi, a shapely, brown skinned beauty likes me a little bit. We have a beach date tomorrow afternoon .
Part of my travel attitude is "Be happy where you are." So, I will abide the racket and have a nice visit. I am swimming and relaxing and hoping to drop my pulse rate a beat or two. And if I stop eating rice with chili sauce for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I may drop a notch or two from my waistline.
And speaking of rice, I found an unpretentious, not too touristy Thai restaurant near my hotel. I ordered a lunch of steamed rice and chicken with garlic and ginger and scallions and red peppers and green peppers. Delicious? No, "outrageous" comes to mind. (For my English cousins, "brilliant") Cost me... two and a half bucks. Forget Zabars.
I also managed a visit to The Big Buddha, the major cultural attraction here.
On the ferry ride from the mainland on Tuesday, I met Martha, a Swiss woman, about my age with three grown children. I do believe she has been almost everywhere. And, she usually travels alone. Naturally we traded travel stories. She made an eight hour hike up the mountains of Madagascar. I countered with my "...in the pouring rain, push the mini-van up the mud covered roads in the mountains of Cambodia." Martha and I do have some similar attitudes and a common travel philosophy. We agreed that it seems so silly to travel half way around the world for a cheeseburger. And in the case of some German vacationers, to beat a trail to a Wurst House in Thailand to consume a Weiner Schnitzel which is available just around the corner, wherever they may live.
We also decried the large, disfiguring tattoos many young people are so fond of. Martha is uncompromising in her devotion to travel. She told me that during the holiday season at home in Switzerland, she announces to her children, "No Presents." Instead she treats them to a short trip to Berlin or Paris or London. Martha's life style reminded me that my parents, Ruth and Otto, in their own way, set a similar example. I am so grateful to them.
And finally, as the ferry slid neatly next to the pier in Ko Samui, and we said our "goodbyes," we reiterated the advantages and disadvantages of traveling alone. One of my own thoughts, which I feel combines the pluses and minuses, is, "Freedom is farewells." My friend responded with the French sentiment, "Partir, c'est un peu mourir."
As we parted, we agreed that the emphasis is definitely "un peu."
Safe travels, Martha.
Safe travels, to you all.
P.S. My beach/island hopping comes to an end on Friday evening. I booked a sleeping compartment on the overnight train to Bangkok. Next week I plan a ten day self-guided tour to the Northeast of Thailand. Ancient Thai and Khmer ruins, mountains, nature reserves, cool evenings, hot,spicy food, no tourists. "Now that's what I'm talkin' about."
P.P.S. A lesson in career choice: One day on the beach I managed to get a small pebble lodged in my foot (or so I thought). I went to a doctor. He carefully cleaned my foot and after a close examination he said he could see nothing. He put on a band-aid, gave me a few extra ones, and sent me on my way. For the consultation he charged me 50 Baht. On Friday morning, I needed a repair on the belt loop on my small carry-all pouch. I found a shoemaker and he fixed the problem in about twenty minutes. For his services he charged me 60 Baht.
P.P.P.S. On the 40 minute motorbike taxi ride out of town to the ferry pier, I passed a very large billboard. And there he was, in living color. You guessed it. The Colonel! Made my day.